Paul Pillar

The Price of Aviation Security

What should we make of the brouhaha over the Transportation Security Administration irradiating air passengers and feeling their private parts? Is it a case of uncommonly overzealous bureaucrats? Unfortunate timing in implementing such stepped-up measures, on the eve of the busiest travel time of the year? Another step in what some regard as ever greater government intrusion into citizens' personal affairs?

It is instead a conspicuous illustration of the inherent, unavoidable trade-offs between security and other important values and objectives. In counterterrorism, the trade-offs involve not only financial and other economic costs but also compromises of personal liberty and privacy. Many public policies involve such trade-offs, especially regarding financial costs but perhaps other side-effects as well. In each case, the nation needs to decide how much of a public good it wants to buy, given those costs. As a representative democracy, the United States ought to have an orderly, democratically accountable way of making those decisions.

Obviously we have not had an orderly procedure in the case of the stepped-up aviation security measures. One contributing reason is that, although the trade-offs clearly exist, it is difficult to define them in sufficiently exact terms to get a clear sense of how much security we are buying for how much cost. We cannot say with confidence that patting down passengers' genitals reduces by X percent the chance of a bomb getting on board an airliner. A more fundamental reason is that we, the public, prefer not to face squarely the trade-offs and choices at all but instead to treat the avoidance of terrorist attacks as an absolute goal. We don't speak in terms of how much security to buy at what cost but instead in terms of what is or is not necessary to achieve that goal. When an attack occurs we regard it as an avoidable failure of government, not as something that sometimes happens when, in return for not surrendering wholesale our privacy and liberties, we accept a degree of risk. Few of the complaints currently being directed against TSA are phrased as, “I prefer not to put up with that much invasion of my privacy, even if it does leave some increased risk of a terrorist attack succeeding.” Instead, the complaints are more like, “Is all this intrusion really necessary to prevent terrorist attacks on aviation?”

No other threat to life and limb gets treated this way. Highway accidents kill some 40,000 people each year in the United States—far beyond the death toll from terrorism. Many measures could be taken that would greatly reduce that figure—for example, as George Will points out, banning left turns (there are many others, such as lowering and rigorously enforcing speed limits). But we don't take such measures because avoiding traffic fatalities is not treated as an absolute goal, as avoiding terrorist incidents is. One doesn't hear talk about what is necessary to eliminate traffic fatalities. We have collectively, tacitly decided that elimination is not worth the added inconvenience (or curtailment of our liberty, if you want to look at it that way) of something like not being able to turn left.

Some of my fellow counterterrorist intelligentsia have offered, in response to the latest dust-up, suggestions for different ways TSA could go about its business of keeping terrorists and their weapons off airplanes. My colleagues can provide informed advice on which techniques might offer more bang for the buck in the sense of effectively finding the bad guys and their weapons at minimal cost to personal privacy. But it should not be up to them to determine where the balance should be struck—to decide how much security the nation should buy at how much cost.

Nor should it be up to a government agency such as TSA. TSA should implement a decision like that, not make the decision itself. In the absence of being handed such a decision by the political authorities, one could say that TSA is doing the next best thing by in effect taking a sort of public poll on the matter by ratcheting up security measures until the public squawks enough that the ratcheting must stop.